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Cristina Odone heads the Family Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice.

Children arriving to school in nappies, unable to eat with a spoon, properly articulate simple words, or even play. Even before the pandemic struck, schools were struggling with children lacking basic skills.

Covid-19 accelerated this. On average, 50 percent of children were not ready to start school in 2021 – as opposed to 1 in 3 pre-pandemic. The new YouGov survey of almost a thousand primary school staff, carried out for the Kindred2 foundation, exposes a terrible truth: a government unwilling to help our youngest.

The Government cannot fail to have learned that the first 1001 days shape a child’s brain. Andrea Leadsom consulted experts throughout 2021 to produce her Early Years Healthy Development Review report, highlighting the need to invest in early years. Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee, is calling for the same. The Royal Foundation, with the Duchess of Cambridge, travelled to Denmark to report on their critical early years education programme. The Education Endowment Foundation has been preaching since 2011 that what happens at home at this time promotes children’s cognitive development. 

These efforts focus not on pastel-coloured nurseries and cuddly toys, but neuroscience: a child’s brain is formed during their first two years, particularly through communication with their primary carer. Developmental progress at 22 months serves as an accurate predictor of educational attainment at 26. Consequently, messing up then impacts a child’s life: 40% of the attainment gap evident in GCSE outcomes at 16 are established before children starting school.

Preventing this disaster doesn’t need the Government to establish kibbutz-style nurseries or Stalinist creches. It does not need to step into the family home, but should focus on parents. What happens at home counts four times as much as a formal setting in affecting a child’s cognitive development. A Government wanting to promote toddlers’ progress needs to engage with their parents, prioritising equipping them with the know-how to care for their children. Yet ministers remain reluctant about intervening.

Parents of toddlers feel short-changed. Those working to pay the bills sense that they should not leave their child with a babysitter slumped in front of her Ipad; and that nurseries, over-subscribed and over-priced (UK childcare is the third most expensive in the world) should offer more than finger painting and mud fights. They suspect their children should be encouraged to speak better, listen more, and exercise self-control. But they are unsure how to achieve this, and would welcome guidance.

We need policies to supply it.  Many schools already have family liaison officers, who prove indispensable in linking hard-to-reach families to their child’s school. Crucially, they can deliver parenting classes. Parents can learn how to stimulate their child’s development and regulate their behaviour. They can appreciate the need for give-and-take and understand the brain’s basics. Feeling better-equipped, they become confident. This lubricates their relationships with their children but also with their spouses, parents, and others.

These programmes are popular, as Matt Buttery, CEO of the Triple P programme has highlighted “It would be a mistake for the Government to assume parents (and voters) want to be left to raise their children. Our online offering, Triple P Online, received a three-fold increase in enrolments during the pandemic…parents are eager to learn strategies and skills.”

Training family liaison officers is a few hundred pounds: a daunting sum for primary schools already feeling financially squeezed. The government would not have to pay, but they could nudge schools into allocating their budget to cover this investment. The Pupil Premium, received by schools with very vulnerable children, would be one source.

Family hubs, a concept the CSJ introduced in 2007, are already integral to the Government’s vision for supporting parents, and the Chancellor has pledged £500 million to promote them. They provide accessible settings for classes and – as Robert Halfon MP has called for – support for local parents struggling with bringing up Baby. But roll out should be accelerated and budget-holders steered towards investing in the early years. 

Childcare must also shift focus. The present system fails to support the most needy. It should deliver free early education for the under-twos in low income households, and not worry about subsidising a few hours (15 per week) of babysitting for well-off 3-4 year olds. Presently, take-up of free childcare is higher among higher income families; only 67% of low income parents are aware of their entitlements. After streamlining this system, the Government should spend more communicating its offer.

Spending on early years is an investment. Failure to do so affects us all. When half the children in a classroom do not have basic skills, they compromise everyone’s learning. As one teacher surveyed by Kindred2 reported, if she is constantly leaving the classroom accompanying a six year old in nappies to the lavatory, how does that affect their classmates’ learning? Every extra hour of instruction accounts for significant improvement in academic performance.

But the impact is long-term, too. It is scary that half of our Reception-age children are ill-prepared to learn, and continue to be so for GCSE and A Levels. Poor educational outcomes are associated with everything from permanent absences (as the CSJ’s Lost but not Forgotten report showed last month), through mental health issues to homelessness and gang membership. The government must learn about the way the brain works – parents’, as well as children’s.